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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Making Slumlords Pay - City Plans to Revise Rental Code

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Thu, Sep 4, 2008 at 2:51 PM

After a year of hashing out ideas with landlords and tenants, the county's Quality Rental Housing Workgroup presented a draft of ideas last night for how to improve conditions for Portland renters. The big gist of the report is that the county should hire six new housing inspectors and restructure fines so that chronic violators (i.e. slumlords) would have to pay more than good landlords who just make small mistakes.

The report isn't just wonky stuff, it relates to how landlords and tenants get things fixed. Portland is a city of renters (an estimated 43% of us rented back in 2000, and I bet it's higher now thanks to the housing crisis) and common problems in rented apartments and houses like mold and broken heaters lead to major health problems. Everyone's got crazy landlord stories, but last night, a handful of tenants told their rental sob stories to the County's Housing and Development Commission.

One woman said her apartment had a "wall of cockroaches" and the landlord didn't clean up even after city inspectors cited the landlord twice. Another woman told the harrowing recollection of the time the glass-front of her living room's gas heater exploded, sending molten glass into the walls and carpets and leaving an open flame exposed in the middle of the room. She explained how she lay awake at night, fearing her cat would wander into the flames. When she moved out in protest two months later, the landlord still hadn't cleaned up the glass.

Right now, a single family home that breaks housing code can be fined only $90 a month even if its roof is caving in and mold is creeping up every wall. A 20-unit apartment complex where just one unit has those problems is charged based on the size of the whole complex - which for a 20-unit building racks up to $450 - even though it's probably about the same number of actual people living in danger. A measly $90 isn't a very strong incentive to make repairs and some landlords just pay it off month after month rather than splurging for the new roof or, you know, annihilating the wall of cockroaches. The new plan would:

- Fine landlords based on the number of units that are unsafe, rather than the number of units in the whole building.
- Increase the fines a lot for single family home landlords. The top monthly fine for a home would jump from $90 to $300, which is a lot harder hit to take.
- Make the fines double if the problem isn't solved within four months (currently, the fines double after six).

More about the plan and some all-important numbers on funding under the cut.

If a renter does have major problems (your heater fucking EXPLODED SHOOTING GLASS ALL OVER YOUR CAT, for example), they can take the landlord through code hearings which levy way bigger fines. But that usually takes months, by which point you've gone all winter without heat and your cat is dead. Ian Slingerland, director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, said the steeper fines are effective, though. He told me the story of an apartment with multiple heating and mold problems that the landlord wouldn't fix. It took them 7 months to get a code hearing and, when they finally did, the county levied a $5,000 fine and the landlord buckled and made the changes. If the fines were severe enough early on, they figure, landlords will make changes more swiftly.

Changing the code, hiring six new inspectors and better educating landlords and tenants about their rights and responsibilities is going to cost the some money. The Workgroup recommends temporarily charging landlords $8-$10 per unit to help the plan's start-up costs, as well as getting a one-time $350,000 check from the city or county. After it gets up and running, they estimate they'll need a $500,000 annually to maintain the inspectors and education programs. Some funding, of course, would come from the pockets of landlords who have to pay the bigger fines -- let's hope skeezeball slumlords don't pass along the cost to tenants in the form of higher rent.

Anyway, now is the time for public comment! So shoot your ideas on how to improve rental rights to the Workgroup before the City Council votes on the draft on Sept. 22nd.

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